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Joseph Nightingale, nicknamed Fearless after a moment of heroism during the Bosnian conflict, is a British war photographer who was in Nairobi during the August 1998 attack on the U.S. Embassy. While he was away, his pregnant girlfriend, an award-winning investigative journalist, was killed in an automobile accident. As Praveen Herat’s gripping debut political thriller, Between This World and the Next, opens, Fearless has accepted his old friend, Alyosha Federenko’s invitation to Cambodia, arriving overwhelmed by grief and guilt.

Federenko stashes Fearless at the Naga, a gathering place for the gangs and soldiers of fortune set loose upon the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the chilling pleasures of this book is Herat’s vivid, knowledgeable portrait of this threatening netherworld, from outposts like the Naga to breakaway states like Transnistria, where money is exchanged for advanced weaponry and private armies are assembled to rule in feudal power.

Federenko himself resides at a luxury hotel while he wheels and deals in an attempt to gather money and power to work himself back into the upper echelons of the new Russian elite. Fearless at first forgives the acquisitiveness of a man he knows was born in chaos and poverty. But as events unfold, and people get hurt and killed, Fearless’s worldview of engaged empathy collides with Federenko’s selfish, transactional view of human interactions.

Also at the Naga is Song, a young Cambodian woman enslaved as a cleaner. As children, she and her twin sister were sold into prostitution. Song’s face has since been ravaged by an acid attack, and her soul is deflated by loss of contact with her sister. She cares for the young children who are brought to the Naga by adult predators and whose gruesome abuse is recorded on video. The existence of one of these videos, handed off to Fearless, sets the elaborate plot rolling with increasing velocity.

The final chapters of Between This World and the Next are breathtaking in their descriptive power and imaginative reach, and the novel’s ending is very satisfying. But some threads still dangle and not all questions are answered—which makes one hope for a sequel.

Praveen Herat’s prizewinning debut thriller, Between This World and the Next, paints a vivid, knowledgeable portrait of a threatening political netherworld, including breakaway states like Transnistria.
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James A. McLaughlin’s deeply evocative writing in Bearskin (2018) earned him an Edgar Award for best first novel, and now he turns his attention from Appalachia to Colorado for an even more ambitious second novel. The title of Panther Gap suggests something savage and spiritual within its pages, and once you begin, you’ll discover a thriller rich with character detail, metaphor and even a bit of magic.

Flashbacks scattered throughout the novel reveal the difficult, sometimes mystical childhood of siblings Bowman and Summer. They grew up on a ranch known as Panther Gap, where their father kept them off the grid and taught them to work the family land, sometimes at a great personal price. In the present, Bowman has become a wanderer obsessed with the natural wonders of the world, while Summer has stayed behind to try and keep Panther Gap afloat with the help of her uncles. 

Everything changes when Summer gets a call about a mysterious inheritance in a secret overseas bank account, something tied to their grandfather’s misadventures in organized crime. The money could save Panther Gap, but other forces are vying for the windfall—forces that could jeopardize Bowman and Summer’s reunion and destroy their complicated family legacy.

What’s immediately striking about Panther Gap is how firmly McLaughlin grasps his characters, not in the sense that he’s a master puppeteer who won’t let them stray, but in that he seems to know every inch of their souls. Even when the narrative blasts off into the thriller stratosphere, he never loses his touch. It’s a remarkably assured novel, with every page enriched by McLaughlin’s confidence in these characters.

Panther Gap comes alive in McLaughlin’s hands, growing and shifting until, by the end, you feel like you could step right into it. It certainly evokes the crime novels of Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos but, most importantly, reaffirms McLaughlin’s own bright, confident voice.

Panther Gap comes alive in James A. McLaughlin’s hands, growing and shifting until, by the end, you feel like you could step right into it.
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Crook Manifesto, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s elegant and pulse-pounding sequel to his tour-de-force heist novel, Harlem Shuffle, may exceed the original. 

After 15 years as a Harlem businessman, Ray Carney, son of a career criminal, has become a pillar of the Black community. A property owner and merchant, he’s expanded his landmark furniture store on 125th Street, and his family lives in a brownstone he bought on the famed Strivers’ Row. His illicit side hustle as a fence seems firmly in the rear view. 

And yet, four years after the close of the previous novel, Ray is both prosperous and twitchy. Temptation stalks him, and when his daughter, May, begs him for sold-out Jackson 5 tickets, he jumps at the opportunity to reach out to his less savory contacts, trading favors with a dirty cop for VIP seats and the chance to be a hero to the hard to impress teenager. 

Still, though Ray frames this reentry to fencing as “the things you do for your kids,” it’s obvious that part of him misses the excitement of life off the straight and narrow. “Crooked stays crooked” is a silent mantra, and Ray is constantly tempted. When the best he can claim is that “sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought,” it seems so easy to do something he’s good at—just fence some stolen goods, and everyone’s a winner, right?

Whitehead’s acerbic, stylized and rhythmic storytelling voice is stronger than ever, but it’s his precise evocation of a fraying 1970s New York City that really makes Ray’s story compelling. Crook Manifesto replicates its precursor’s episodic, three-part structure and unsurpassed blending of social history and crime fiction, starting in 1971 and continuing to 1973 and 1976. The historical touchstones are fascinating and relatively less-storied compared to the ’60s signposts of Harlem Shuffle. The year 1971 includes the New York Police Department corruption scandal starring whistleblower detective Frank Serpico (played memorably by Al Pacino in the movie Serpico), the Black Liberation Army breaking off from the Black Panthers and that historic Jackson 5 concert. In 1973, it’s Blaxploitation film and counterculture, and in 1976, the U.S. bicentennial is the political spark that may finally burn it all down.

These pieces of history are inextricable from the spectacularly evocative atmosphere. Through Ray’s eyes, we’re immersed in a city in the midst of a slow-moving crisis. Crime is surging, trash is piling up, and the wealthy are fleeing to the suburbs and skyscraper fortresses. Even the wealthy Upper East Side is looking a bit shabby. The city’s story alone would be worth the price of admission, but the characters are equally strong, especially Ray, a study in contradictions. Between the muggers and police rousting Black men on the streets in higher numbers than usual, it seems a precarious time to be getting mixed up with a crooked cop who’s gone to seed. It’s even worse to be walking around Manhattan with a hundred thousand’s worth in stolen jewels; and yet as well as Ray is doing, and as much as he has to lose, he quite convincingly can’t resist the siren call of danger.  

With that knockout interplay between context and character, Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted its (anti) hero in Harlem Shuffle. The combination makes this sequel soar.

Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.

Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted Colson Whitehead’s main character in Harlem Shuffle. The interplay between context and character makes this sequel soar.
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The Ray Carney saga is Colson Whitehead’s first series, and just like his readers, he feels passionately about the man at its center: a respectable, upwardly mobile furniture salesman by day, and fence of stolen goods by night. “I love him too. He’s been a great source of pleasure and inspiration,” says the author. But that affection doesn’t stop Whitehead from mercilessly putting Ray through the wringer. 

Picking up four years after the close of Harlem Shuffle, Crook Manifesto heightens the dangers and stakes for the prosperous Harlem merchant and former hustler, and Ray soon gets sucked back into life on the seamier side. After all, as Whitehead writes, “crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.” 

In truth, the author may love Ray now, but the character was born out of a kind of hate—the distaste Whitehead felt for a ubiquitous trope in heist movies. “The character of the fence is always a travesty,” he says. “The team does all the work, and half the crew’s dead—they’re crawling or bloody, the cops are after them. And then some random guy you haven’t even seen before in the whole movie is like ‘10 cents on the dollar.’”

“I hated the fence so much that I started thinking, who is that? Who is that guy?” 

Whitehead was incensed by the patterns he observed on-screen, but that ire gave way to curiosity: “I hated the fence so much that I started thinking, who is that? Who is that guy?” And from this interrogation came the driving force of the Ray Carney trilogy: “the psychology of the fence. . . . Having a front business and having your illegal stuff in the back provided the divided nature of Ray Carney.”

Although Whitehead kept his cards close to the vest, he knew almost from the start that he had a series on his hands. While the initial instinct was “to do a heist book and just have fun with that genre,” once started, the ideas kept flowing. There was just too much material, and he was having too much fun to stop at one book. “I was halfway through [Harlem Shuffle], and I was coming up with more capers that obviously would not fit,” he says. 

Doing the math, he figured: six adventures, two books. But also, “if you do two, might as well do three. You know, I’m definitely a rule-of-three guy.” Still, he proceeded cautiously in terms of commitment. He didn’t want to be held to a third book, just in case he got bored—but that never happened. Now he’s deep in the writing of Ray’s third and presumably final set of adventures.

Along with the series being a trilogy, each individual book has a three-act structure. Harlem Shuffle tells of three separate misadventures for Ray at three pivotal moments during the 1960s, and this structure continues in Crook Manifesto, which evokes the ’70s down to the sight, feel and smell of a crumbling New York City. In the first book, Ray is in his 30s; second book, 40s; third book, 50s. Ray’s experiences with aging and all its attendant challenges are essential to the series, and it also means that initially, “his kids are babies; in the second book, they’re teenagers of varying degrees of annoyingness; and in the third book, they’ll be in college and out of the house.”

Three decades is, as Whitehead says, “a long stretch of time.” But in addition to the capers and misadventures that flow from the heist narrative, he found something compelling about the mystery surrounding the fence, and with great finesse he explores the dichotomy between Ray’s straight-and-narrow life and “the call of the street.” We witness Ray’s wrestling with his criminal nature—“bending toward it, embracing it, rejecting it,” Whitehead says—and by shifting our focus to this internal tug of war, we are invited to think beyond the usual markers of time and success.

In the four-year interregnum between Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, Ray has kept his nose clean, built a prosperous business and bought both a commercial building for his store and a home for his family, moving uptown to the much storied if fraying Strivers’ Row. It’s a laudable, remarkable rise for the son of a failed career criminal, and yet it’s not enough. 

In 1971, the year Crook Manifesto kicks off, Ray’s sabbatical from crime ends abruptly in an almost ironic way, considering the innocence of the inciting incident in comparison to the refuse he must wade through after. Ray calls on an old contact to get tickets to a sold-out (and history-making) Jackson 5 concert for his 15-year-old daughter—although as Whitehead points out, this fatherly duty is a cover to give in to an itch that’s been nagging at him for years. 

The world around Ray is also evolving. In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead allowed the pull of crucial—though not necessarily widely remembered—events in New York City history to guide him in shaping Ray’s story. In pursuit of key moments to “exploit,” he arrived upon the anti-police Harlem riots in 1943 and 1964. Whitehead decided that Invisible Man had portrayed the former in such an iconic, indelible manner that “I’ll let Ralph [Ellison] keep the 1940s one. I haven’t read a lot of stuff about the 1960s one. So it was open territory.”

The tension between the public and the police escalates to a palpable and deadly fever pitch in Crook Manifesto. The New York Police Department wages war against Black power activists, and a police corruption scandal widens, putting cops in the hot seat. And yet, in a way that matches the dualism of the novel’s leading man, Ray’s story also shows how normal life goes on alongside such events.

In keeping with that, the movie- and music-obsessed author takes the opportunity to throw his love of pop culture history into the mix, something that gives him great pleasure. “I was very taken with that idea that I could get my pop culture fixation and bring Ray along,” he says. So in addition to the Jackson 5 concert, which provides a soundtrack and momentum for Crook Manifesto’s first movement, the second section weaves in the rise of Blaxploitation cinema. It’s a heady and riveting mashup of politics, culture, family life and crime that only a talent of Whitehead’s stature could so seamlessly blend.

Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.

As the Ray Carney series steps into the 1970s, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead continues to explore history through propulsive heist narratives that go far beyond crimes and cover-ups.
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Our top 10 books for August 2023 include Colson Whitehead's riotous sequel to Harlem Shuffle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's latest horror novel and an engrossing look at race in Shakespeare’s works.
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Pick your city: New York. London. Hong Kong. Jakarta. Athens. New Delhi. They are, all of them, studies in sharp contrasts, places where the uber-rich glide along gilded paths, cheek-by-jowl with the destitute, the desperate and the deadly. For the people who occupy the space between these extremes, it’s possible to ignore or be oblivious to both worlds, save for an occasional glimpse on the evening news or in a novel, as we wistfully aspire to cash in like a Kardashian or batten our hatches against financial ruin.

In her riveting second novel, Age of Vice, journalist Deepti Kapoor plays Virgil to our Dante, skillfully guiding us through contemporary India’s political, social, economic and criminal circles. The book opens in the immediate aftermath of a horrific car crash in which several people have been killed. The alleged perp, Ajay, is arrested, booked and subjected to a variety of indignities in prison. Then it is discovered that Ajay is a “Wadia man,” a term of mysterious significance that affords him much better treatment than his fellow detainees.

Readers are then transported back to Ajay’s youth, where, after a family tragedy, he is sent to work on a farm as a sort of indentured servant. After a few years, circumstances thrust him into the orbit of a rich playboy named Sunny Wadia, and the two strike up something akin to a friendship, albeit between unequals.

Sunny seems to have it all, with the exception of self-discipline, a sense of boundaries and the respect of his father, which he desperately craves. But he does have a plan, or rather, a series of them, which he tries to set into motion with the loyal Ajay at his side. In the midst of all this, Sunny meets and falls in love with a journalist named Neda Kapur, who has the power to further Sunny’s agenda or crush it. 

The story bounces back and forth between the three main characters’ narratives and across five consequential years that will alter all of their futures irrevocably. Along the way, Kapoor paints a mesmerizing picture of violence and decadence, of struggle and hope, of corruption and redemption. At 500-plus pages, you may find Age of Vice difficult to pick up, but it’s also impossible to put down.

In her riveting second novel, Deepti Kapoor plays Virgil to our Dante, skillfully guiding us through contemporary India’s political, social, economic and criminal circles.
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“Help me get back to my baby, or I’ll make your life a living hell.” That’s the voice of Erma Singleton, a dead woman whose body is found on a New Mexico highway. Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Crime Lab, is frequently haunted by the ghosts of the victims she photographs, but Erma is particularly persistent. Ramona Emerson’s intriguing debut thriller, Shutter, follows Rita through a series of crimes that eventually puts her in the crosshairs of a dirty cop who’s on the take from a powerful drug cartel. 

In alternating chapters, readers follow both Rita’s battle against corruption and her coming-of-age as a photographer and vessel for departed spirits. Rita has been haunted by spirits ever since she was a child growing up on the Diné reservation, and her devoted grandmother and a tribal elder have long tried to protect Rita from these voices. Rita’s relationship with her grandmother is particularly well done, as is the novel’s portrayal of Indigenous history and discrimination. As the book progresses, the action revs up in both Rita’s backstory and her crime-solving saga.

As a Diné writer and filmmaker from New Mexico, Emerson has created an intriguing crime drama in a setting she knows intimately, and her photographic knowledge shines. Each chapter is titled after a different type of camera used by Rita, ranging from a pinhole camera in her youth to her mother’s Hasselblad and a digital Nikon. Emerson got her start in forensic videography, so her detailed crime scene descriptions are not for the faint of heart: Erma met a particularly gruesome death, and so do others, including a murdered judge and his family. 

Shutter is a promising debut that satisfyingly explores forensic photography and Diné culture within the New Mexico landscape, surrounded by the voices of some very engaging ghosts.

Shutter is a promising debut that satisfyingly explores forensic photography and Diné culture within the New Mexico landscape, surrounded by the voices of some very engaging ghosts.
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Somewhere out in the fictional desert between “Breaking Bad” and No Country for Old Men, death is stalking its next victim in Gabino Iglesias’ spellbinding third novel, The Devil Takes You Home. The word spellbinding is used advisedly here, because the novel’s interweaving of fantastical elements with sudden and savage violence will leave unwary readers stunned.

It’s a story as old as Job: A good guy, beset by horrible circumstances, tries to preserve his faith and sanity in the face of unrelenting misery. In the biblical tale, Job holds fast to his soul; in this one, Mario goes down a darker road. Overwhelmed by medical expenses and offered a chance to make some quick money as a hit man, Mario hesitates only for a moment before packing heat and becoming an avenging angel.

It’s not uncommon for those who live in the shadow of criminality to dream of one big score that will put them on easy street, and Mario’s friend Brian offers him a piece of this dream: They will claim one cartel’s shipment of money for a different cartel and thus receive a handsome chunk of the reward. When Brian and Mario meet Don Vázquez, the baddest of the bad and the head of the Juárez Cartel, they try to exchange pleasantries: “Thank you, Brian,” Don Vázquez replies, “but I was just telling your friend Mario that meeting me is never a pleasure; meeting me is something that happens to people because they have made a bad decision.”

As with most noir narratives, this one is rife with bad decisions, many of them lethal. Iglesias does masterful work with Mario’s internal narration as he puzzles over which of his partners poses the greatest potential threat. Much of the novel switches back and forth between Spanish and English, and both languages are integral to the story, making them all the more worthwhile to comprehend.

The world of The Devil Takes You Home is harsh and unforgiving, its desert the most treacherous terrain. Iglesias does such a place justice in his brawny, serpentine and remarkably poignant novel.

The desert can be treacherous terrain, harsh and unforgiving. Gabino Iglesias does it justice in his brawny, serpentine and remarkably poignant crime novel.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

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